NEW ORLEANS >> Tom Benson, a successful auto dealer and longtime owner of the New Orleans Saints who brought the franchise its only winning seasons and the “Benson Boogie,” has died.
Benson also owned the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans since 2012, but the 90-year-old made his mark in pro sports with the Saints.
The teams announced Benson’s death today. He had been hospitalized since Feb. 16 with flu symptoms.
Benson bought the Saints in 1985 when it appeared the club would be sold to out-of-state interests and perhaps moved out of Louisiana. He paid $70 million for the team, which is now worth close to $2 billion.
“Tom Benson’s contributions to New Orleans and the National Football League were legendary. He purchased a team that had never had a winning season; by the third year of his ownership, the Saints were in the playoffs,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Tom kept the Saints together through the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and his decision to bring the team back to New Orleans gave the entire region hope and confidence that they would recover.”
Benson’s business acumen helped turn the Saints from a perennial also-ran into a contender — and the 2009 NFL champion. Yet his ownership also was less flatteringly marked by the 2012 bounty scandal and reports Benson did not want to bring the team back to New Orleans from San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.
When the NBA took over the financially troubled New Orleans Hornets in late 2010 and spent more than a year trying to find a permanent owner, Benson finally stepped in and bought the club for $338 million. The club is now known as the Pelicans and its estimated value exceeds $1 billion.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he’d remember Benson as big-hearted and gracious, and praised the way he not only ran the Pelicans, but also hosted two All-Star weekends in New Orleans, the second after it had been moved from Charlotte following state legislation deemed discriminatory by the NBA.
Benson also became a leading New Orleans philanthropist. He helped fund Tulane’s on-campus football stadium and the cancer treatment center at Ochsner Medical Center. The home of the NFL’s Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, also was renamed for Benson after an $11 million gift, the largest in the hall’s history.
Benson “possessed a deep passion for the game and was committed to its growth,” said Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker, who was also the Arena Football League commissioner when Benson owned an arena team called the VooDoo.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called Benson a “friend and ally” whose marketing and finance expertise guided the NFL’s Finance Committee.
“He was astute, exceptionally smart and an accomplished sportsman and businessman,” Jones said. “He pumped life and enthusiasm into a community and a franchise that had no winning seasons before he became involved.”
Benson’s death comes on the heels of an acrimonious family split that has caused some uncertainty about the future of his professional teams.
He made it known in January 2015 that he wanted his third wife, Gayle, to inherit complete control of the Saints and Pelicans, and Greg Bensel, the senior vice president of communications for both clubs, said the NFL and NBA have both approved Benson’s succession plan.
However, Benson’s disowned daughter, Renee, and her two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc — who had long been in line to take over the Benson business empire — have vowed to prove their patriarch was manipulated against them while in a mentally enfeebled state. They lost a 2015 legal struggle for control of the teams, but could still contest Benson’s will.
Fans, however, will remember Benson’s heavy New Orleans accent and parasol dances along the sideline after victories. He cut quite the figure among NFL owners when he first joined the league.
His jovial game-day persona turned hardheaded, however, when it came to business.
In 2001, he negotiated an unprecedented $187 million in concessions and state subsidies to keep his team playing in the Superdome through 2010 — a deal Benson said was necessary to succeed in small-market New Orleans. That lease was followed by another unusual arrangement in which the state stopped paying direct subsidies to Benson, but committed to relocate numerous state offices in a Katrina-damaged high-rise next to the Superdome — at above-market rents — if Benson rehabilitated the building, which is now called Benson Tower.
Until recent years, fans often questioned whether Benson’s desire for profit outweighed his loyalty to his native city. With the Superdome and much of the city wrecked by Katrina, the Saints temporarily relocated to San Antonio, where Benson had many business holdings.
When officials there said they were talking to Benson about what it would take to keep the team, Katrina-weary residents in New Orleans reacted angrily. Graffiti reading, “Warning, Tom Benson inside,” was scrawled on numerous foul-smelling, discarded refrigerators that lined sidewalks around the city.
But when the Saints returned to a still-reeling New Orleans in early 2006 — or were forced to by the league, which would not allow Benson to abandon the Big Easy — the region’s fans responded with more than a decade of consecutive sellouts.
The Saints became a source of inspiration during the tough early days of post-Katrina rebuilding. They improved from 3-13 in 2005 to 10-6 under new coach Sean Payton, and then advanced to the franchise’s first NFC championship game. A Super Bowl title came in February 2010.
Scandal followed two years later when the NFL uncovered a bounty system in which Saints players earned improper, off-the-books cash bonuses for hits that hurt or sidelined opponents.
Payton wound up serving an unprecedented full-season suspension in 2012 and the Saints were fined $500,000 — even though Benson had ordered general manager Mickey Loomis to shut down the bounty program when the owner was told of it.
One of four children, Benson grew up in the hardscrabble Seventh Ward of New Orleans.
In 1945, Benson served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS South Dakota. Then he studied business and accounting at Loyola University in New Orleans, went to work as a bookkeeper for Cathey Chevrolet Co., and was sent to San Antonio as a 29-year-old in 1956 to manage a Chevrolet dealership as a junior partner. Six years later, he took full control of the company and established his own dealership.
He built his fortune primarily in the automobile business, as well as in banking and real estate. More recently, he got involved in thoroughbred horse racing and took over Dixie Beer.
But his passion later in life was the Saints. He kept an office at the training facility and was frequently seen there and at training camp in a golf cart watching practices.
Tom Benson and his first wife, Shirley, had three children, two of whom preceded their father in death. He also had several stepchildren from his marriage to his second wife, Grace, who died in 2003. In addition to his wife, estranged daughter and her two children, Tom Benson is survived by grandchild Dawn Jones, the daughter of Tom Benson’s late son, Robert.